Tropical Savannas CRCNatural Heritage Trust

Fire agreement to strengthen communities

Members of the Arnhem community, including Lofty Bardayal Nadjamerrek, with Environment Minister Marion Scrymgour and researchers Jeremy Russell Smith and Peter Cooke
Members of the Arnhem community, including Lofty Bardayal Nadjamerrek, with Environment Minister Marion Scrymgour and researchers Jeremy Russell Smith and Peter Cooke

A LANDMARK agreement between Indigenous land managers, government and the energy industry, is set to boost fire management in the Top End, reduce greenhouse gas emissions as well as provide meaningful jobs for people on country and benefits to the communities involved.

The West Arnhem Fire Management Agreement (WAFMA) project is a partnership between the Northern Territory Government, Darwin Liquefied Natural Gas, the Northern Land Council and Traditional Owners from coastal Maningrida, to the headwaters of the Katherine and Mann rivers, as a strategy for offsetting greenhouse gas emissions from the Wickham Point Gas Plant.

"This is an historic agreement-a first of its kind for the world-that brings together the world's oldest cultures with Western science," the NT's Environment Minister, Marion Scrymgour said. "It is also the first time that a major energy company has formed a partnership with Aboriginal Traditional Owners to foster a return to traditional fire management regimes leading to a subsequent reduction in greenhouse gases."

As part of the arrangement, Darwin Liquefied Natural Gas will provide around $1 million every year for the next 17 years to Aboriginal Traditional Owners of western Arnhem Land to implement a fire burning strategy. Patchy burns will be implemented across the landscape to better protect the Arnhem Land Plateau from the wildfires that occur late in the year. The burns will break up the fuel available for destructive fires. Limiting wildfires will in turn reduce the emission of greenhouse gases from that landscape. Savanna fires are the greatest source of greenhouse gas emissions for the Northern Territory. Based on estimates for 2004, burning of savannas contributes 41% of the NT's accountable emissions.

Patchy grass fires, however, emit fewer greenhouse gases than wildfires which can kill trees. If a mosaic of patch burns limits the spread of wildfires, less of the landscape is burned and fewer greenhouse gases emitted. Reducing emissions in this way from the west Arnhem Plateau will offset greenhouse gas emissions from the Liquefied Natural Gas plant at Wickham Point.

Research coordinated by the TS-CRC and involving CSIRO, Bushfires NT, the Australian Greenhouse Office, NT's Department of Natural Resources Environment and the Arts, and Western Australia's Department of Land Information underpinned the feasibility of the agreement.

"The Tropical Savannas CRC will be contracted to monitor and report on greenhouse gas emissions during the agreement," said Dr Jeremy Russell-Smith, fire ecologist with the Bushfires NT and TS-CRC.

A major outcome is that the agreement will provide meaningful jobs for people in the long term, with a host of benefits to the communities involved, said Jeremy. These include:

  • providing role models and better career paths for Aboriginal children-a focus of the project.
  • supporting transfer of Indigenous knowledge between generations as elders work with young people.
  • helping people re-establish contact with traditional lands.
  • building English skills and cross-cultural confidence essential to economic activities such as tourist enterprises.
  • supporting partnerships between remote communities leading to improved social and economic coordination.

Limiting wildfires will also help conserve environmental and cultural values of the Plateau. These include numerous rock art sites and around 77,000 ha of rainforest which are being damaged by repeated wildfires.


Dr Jeremy Russell-Smith
Fire Management Consultant
Tel: 08 8922 0830

Fax: 08 8922 0833

PO Box 37346

Explore this article in Land Manager.